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Authors: Matthew Stadler,Columbia University. Writing Division

Tags: #Young men

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BOOK: Landscape: Memory
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I became suddenly very frightened, as if these thoughts had been lurking and now came right around in front of me, freed by my saying them. Moments before I didn't know any of them, but now they all seemed so awful and real and true.

"Have you lost your appetite?" Mother asked, entertaining her own fears. It made me giggle again.

"No, no. I'm physically fine, except for not sleeping right. I just don't understand some things." But that sounded too much like that, and I could see the switches turning in her mind, adding what she was sure must be two and two. "It's not that," I said, by way of warning.

"Not what, pumpkin?"

"Nothing."

She paused and puzzled. "What do you mean about your memory, dearest? That troubles me."

I tried to think. I wanted to tell her exactly.

"I have trouble thinking sometimes. Not thinking really. I'm always thinking." But that wasn't it exactly. "It just feels strange, like I'm not thinking right, or I'm thinking
so
right and then I see things and my head is empty. I get shivers through my body." That much was true. I looked at her hoping she might see into my head and tell me what was happening. "Is that normal?"

She kissed my warm forehead. "You are not normal, dearest, thank the Lord. I fear you're upset by my actions."

"It's not
that
,'' I protested. "This isn't just that."

Now she'd done it.

"Pumpkin," she began, as if there were
any
words to undo what she'd done. I didn't bother listening.

"I am not just reacting to you or Father," I continued, not letting her speak. "I'm not just making up some false problem to puzzle over. This is
mine, my
problem."

"Let's not abandon reason, dearest. I was only suggesting."

"I don't care. About reason or you or Father or any of that. And I don't want your suggestions." How could she be so dumb? "I'm trying to understand something very strange to me, and you only want to talk about your stupid affair. Well, I don't want to talk about it." I wasn't sure if that was what I meant, but it seemed to shut her up. We sat uncomfortably silent, looking at various crumbs and goo-gobs on the faded tablecloth. It was getting dark now.

"What
can
I say, pumpkin? I want to help."

She had a knack for the wrong word. "I don't want
help.
I want a simple conversation. I was trying to share my thoughts with my mother, as all little boys should."

 
* * * 

She began packing things back in the basket. The sky was black and clear to the east and deep blue over the hills west. I watched a yacht strung with colored lights chugging across the inky bay, puffs of white smoke trailing from its thin smokestack. I hated what I'd said but would not speak to undo it.

"I'm tired, pumpkin. I'm just very tired now," she said, and she took the basket and left me.

I walked around for quite a while, it might have been hours. My body was tired but my mind woke up as night came on. I thought maybe I'd walk to the Sutro baths and watch the people swimming but when I got there the baths were closed. It must've been almost midnight. I decided to go wake up Duncan.

"I want to show you somewhere," I whispered, lying down next to him and rocking his shoulder to wake him up.

He stretched and yawned, turning toward me and propping up on one elbow. "You're up still?" he asked. "I thought you'd been asleep all evening. Your door's closed."

"I've been with my mom."

"This late?"

"Earlier, for drawing. I've been walking around."

"Aren't you tired? You looked a mess today."

"I'll be tired, but I'm pretty awake now."

"You should've left a note on your door or something."

"Yeah? What would you've done if I left a note?"

He paused to think. "Nothing, I guess."

We lay there in silence, the nighttime breeze blowing in the opened window. I watched the blankets rise and fall with his soft breathing, and felt my own move in time with his.

"So come on. I gotta show you somewhere."

"No, Dogey, no. I'm so warm here." He started whimpering.

"Yes. I'm serious."

"Why? It's freezing out there." And he pulled the covers tight around him.

"It's not so bad once you're dressed and walking. You'll like it."

"You don't know that."

"I know that. You will like it, it's an adventure. It's a wilderness adventure."

"Ooohh, spooky." He made a horrible spooky sound. "Will there be bats and things?"

"Yes, yes. Horrible screaming."

"Mine?"

"Yours," and I pulled the covers off. "Come on then, before it's dawn."

We were soon out of the house, Duncan scoffing a biscuit and me leading.

I wanted to take him to the woods up in the Presidio, to that place in the woods, the hollow looking west. I hadn't been there in the dark yet but I felt certain I could find it. I remembered routes mostly by terrain and not so much by sight. Particularly in the thick of the woods, I followed the feel of my feet on the ground.

 

The bright half moon cast our shadows as we walked, the night full with cool ocean air. No one was awake, it seemed, anywhere. Silence stretched out around us. We scrambled up into the trees, the moonlight shut out now by thick branches. Duncan had hold of my shirttail and kept bumping up against me or pulling back. I felt his breath, warm and billowing, against my bare neck, and kept on, blindly, through the woods.

The rough ground rose and fell beneath us, the trees so thick we'd brush against them without seeing. The moon was gone. I knew the path and could follow it so long as I didn't try and think. Down a short drop, left and quickly right, up a steady rise, the ground harder underfoot, over a small ridge and onto soft moss. We were there, so suddenly I almost didn't stop. The trees opened up around us. The half moon came clear among the clouds again. We stood in silence, breathing, and listened to the ocean breaking against the rocks below. Buoy bells clanged their warnings to ships at sea. The water broke white against rocks caught in the dim moonlight.

"It's this," I said. "Right here."

Duncan sat down on the damp moss and looked into the soft rustling of the eucalyptus. He turned to me, his eyes bright white in the dark brown of his face. "Spooky," he said, quiet and quick, and he shivered.

"Yeah," I agreed. "Right here." And we both watched in all directions, the shadowy mess of tree tops and down low into the thicket, around the soft stretch of moss and out across the wide-open water. I wanted to say how I felt here but that wasn't possible.

Hollow metal banging came crashing up from the rocks, scaring white birds out of the tree tops. The waves kept up their rhythm, heavy and slow, drawing off the rough tumble of land and surging back again. The metal banged again with each wash of water hard into the rocks. Then there was a terrible sound, metal scraping metal, and men's voices yelling in some strange tongue.

We stretched and strained to look down onto the rocks. White foam splashed high and took the shapes of phantoms, ghostly blobs engorged against the black face of the rock, then gone back into the sea. In the waves we thought we'd spotted the prow of a boat, certain we'd seen its outline. Water washed over the gunwales. Its nose dipped dangerously and battered in close to land's end. It may have truly been a ship, but what I saw went under while what Duncan saw floated free and disappeared to the east.

The awful metal scraping started in again, gathering its pitch and wail to a pinnacle and a gunshot snap. The yelling was loud now, and angry. One water-washed phrase was garbled in the roaring waves, and a chorus of other voices yelled back, growing distant. And the metal banging was gone.

 
* * * 

 

Duncan had leaned out over the edge, holding tight to the trunk of a heavy fir, and stretched as far as he could. We couldn't go down, for fear we'd never make it back up. The man's voice kept up a long time, more and more frantic, and then stopped.

"Anything?" I asked Duncan, hoping he'd seen what happened.

"Nothing. What we saw was waves, I think." We kept quiet and strained to hear, but the wind and water were as full of phantom sounds as the night was of ghosts. Each moan and call sounded like a dying man or a criminal, scrambling uphill all bloodied and ruthless.

"1 can't tell if that's him," I said. It worried me, every sound was so ambiguous.

"That's water, or birds, I think."

Loud laughing came at us again, only now it sounded much more like wild water. Duncan looked at me and then peered out over the edge.

"That's water, too," he said.

"No. That's a man." And the sound came rushing up through the woods again, more watery still.

"That's water for certain."

I first thought he must be wrong, that everything I'd heard and seen meant this must be a man, crushed to death and bloody against the rocks. But that reality was too frightening and impossible to deal with. I huddled close to Duncan, seeking comfort in his explanation.

"It sounds so weird," I whispered to him. "It's like this here all the time."

"You heard it like this here before?"

"Yeah," I answered quietly, remembering my dream and the deep sleep of last time. "It's the shape of the hill, and the rocks down there. Every time it's weird. That's why I brought you here." It seemed possible.

Duncan smiled and looked up through the ghostly trees. "Jesus, Max, it's wild. It sounds so real." He rolled back across the moss and groaned hysterically up into the night, spreading his arms and pushing against the damp ground. I felt glad for his enthusiasm, and quickly buried my secret fear that what we'd seen and heard, however incomplete, could not have been simply rocks and water.

Duncan's laughter wobbled all around me. The tall trees, waving in the blackened sky, the water beating on the rocky shore, the empty night turning on its pivot toward dawn. I lay still in the hollow. The mystery of that broken man echoed inside my sleepless head, and slipped away to hide inside me.

2 MAY 1915 

This from
The Call:

Joseph H. Hunt, wealthy fruit packer, and his wife are prostrated at their home in Oakland over the tragic death of their thirteen-year-old son, Harold. Edith Akerly, the lad's girl chum, who made a heroic attempt to save him, is in the hospital.

The boy was thrown into the lake when his canoe was overturned by a gust of wind as he was paddling across to keep a tennis engagement with Miss Akerly. After swimming a short distance he suddenly sank, but came up again, calling calmly to his chum, "I am all right. I'll be fine." Miss Akerly told doctors that young Hunt swam about in small circles as though dazed. He looked around him, calling again, "I am all right, Edie. I'll be in soon" and then sank.

The brave girl was standing on the shore when she saw the boy sink, tore off her outer dress and plunged into the lake. She swam about waiting for him to come up. The body of the boy was recovered an hour and a half later but no spark of life remained.

 

Dear Robert,

There's a game we play with the four or five of us on watch when it's near to dawn and even the snipers have fallen into a dead sleep. Each man takes a card and slaps it face out up to his forehead so that everyone else can see and we proceed to bet good money on it. No one knows what card they hold. We're silent as church mice.

Could you send along a dictionary? We speak so seldom (silence being our best protection) that I fear I'm losing my English. Dirt flies off shrapnel bursts and my every thought is contained in action—sudden flight, a waving of arms, rapidly shifting facial expressions strung together like sentences. No words intercede.

I wonder about the night, its many secrets. Is that where wisdom lies?

  

* * * 

4 MAY 1915

It must be three o'clock a.m. now. I've got a candle lit in a giant Persian lantern all filigreed and fancy, casting spooky shadows, dancing across the heavy carpets hanging on the walls, all shapes of women and animals and crouching men. Duncan's fast asleep and I will be soon, but this lantern's got me all dreamy and scared. I wanted to put it down now, not remembering.

The candle's burned an hour or so. It's bright inside the metal chamber, bright yellow brass. It's dripping wax out the bottom where the walls curve in and the shapes give way to a filigreed border. I can convince myself the flickering figures are alive. They jump and bob, knocking into one another, playing out some ancient play that's lived in this lamp forever, come to life with the flicker of flame, and composed of whatever they're cast upon. In this room it's wooden walls and carpets, books full of nonsense, and black windows they fall through.

I've blown it out now. The metal's going cold. There's enough light out there to see in the night, once you get used to it. I see shapes sharper than daytime and if I look off to the side I can make out the finest details, like the words I'm writing. I can see them only if I look sideways past them. But you've got to keep your eyes moving, otherwise things just disappear.

BOOK: Landscape: Memory
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ads

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